In the modern NBA, post-ups are generally inefficient. They take time to setup and execute, and even the best post-ups produce average results compared to other shots. With the three-pointer becoming increasingly popular, the demise of the post-game has been talked about for a while now. But trends in the NBA are often cyclical. Teams adapt, and old ideas can be repurposed into new strategies at any time. This season the Boston Celtics are using the post-up to generate efficient and effective half-court offense.
On post-up shots, the Celtics rank 7th in points per possession and 17th in attempts, per Synergy. It’s fair to say they’ve taken a “quality over quantity” approach. Boston has some naturally skilled players around the basket, but they also do a nice job of exploiting mismatches.
When Boston has a favorable matchup on the floor, they are more likely to work the ball into the post. Marcus Smart might be the strongest guard in the league, and he uses that to dominate smaller opponents. He’s second on the team in post-ups this season per Synergy. He’s scoring in the 85th percentile on them, which falls into the “excellent” category.
Jaylen Brown deserves a shout-out too for his excellent work in the post. He’s in the 92nd percentile, which is fantastic. He doesn’t get a ton of touches, so the sample is really small. But the skill is definitely there. It has potential to be a big part of his arsenal as his offensive game progresses.
Kelly Olynyk has expanded his post-up game this season as well. He’s especially dangerous if he can get a smaller defender to switch onto him. When this happens, Olynyk usually towers over the man guarding him. They’ve fed him the ball in these scenarios recently, with good results:
On these plays, Olynyk is so big that the guard can barely contest the shot. He’s a smooth finisher at the rim normally, so these are even better looks considering the situation.
Scoring in the post is nice on its own, but the looks created from posting-up are really important too. This is no recent discovery for Brad Stevens. Way back in 2013 he talked with Zach Lowe about playmaking from the post:
ZL: In other words: The post-up is more a vehicle for passing and other shots, rather than necessarily for a post-up shot itself?
BS: It’s a vehicle for playing inside-out. That’s right.
This year Stevens finally has the pieces to really put that philosophy in place. Synergy has the Celtics ranked #1 in the NBA in post-up + passing situations. This includes the possessions where the post-up player passes out to a teammate who takes a shot. This ranking makes sense when you watch the Celtics, as they have some excellent passers operating out of the post.
Marcus Smart is capable of some creative passing, but the real key to this is Al Horford. Horford accounts for nearly half of Boston’s post-ups by himself. He’s solid at converting on his own, but he’s really shined passing out of the post. His patience and court vision make him an excellent playmaker. His passing out of the post has helped him average a career-high 5 assists per game, leading all Centers in the NBA. Per Synergy, he ranks 11th in the league in post-up passing, and that jumps up to 1st if you only include players with 50 or more of those possessions.
Horford is great at finding shooters for spot-up looks. It doesn’t matter if he’s facing up the defender or has his back to him:
He can fit passes into tight windows to hit cutters for open layups too:
Finally, this last play is a good example how everything can tie together in the offense:
The IT-Horford pick-and-roll results in a switch, so Horford moves into position for a post-up. He gets the (slightly off-target) pass and surveys the court. Minnesota sends another defender to deal with the mismatch, and Horford finds Bradley for the wide-open dunk. This play is cool because it features the most notable strengths of Boston’s offense: IT’s pick-and-roll dominance, Horford’s passing acumen, and Bradley’s elite cutting.
It’s important not to get too carried away here. Post-ups only constitute a small part of the offense as a whole, and other plays are certainly more important. But it’s an area the Celtics have made a nice improvement on this season. Small advantages like these can be pivotal against the best teams in the NBA. When the playoffs come around, Boston will take whatever they can get.